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Senate to counter right-leaning House

by Dan Popkey
| December 5, 2010 8:00 PM

BOISE - Republicans in the Idaho Senate could have made a statement: An already conservative GOP caucus has tilted further right.

Instead, three of four leadership contests were won by less conservative candidates Wednesday night. The outcome suggests the Senate will remain a counter to the more aggressively right-leaning House.

"Members of the caucus want a full spectrum of ideology in leadership," said Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, who lost his conservative challenge to unseat Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis of Idaho Falls. "Maybe the caucus was saying a little change is good, but a total change is more than we're willing to risk."

Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, a political ally with his former seatmates since he left the House for the Senate in 2002, lamented a lost opportunity to ride a conservative wave at the polls that helped four new GOP senators replace less-conservative incumbents in the 28-member caucus.

"There were a lot of people hoping to see a change in leadership to reflect the times," Pearce said. "But this is the Senate; it's slow to move. Change was offered and it was not accepted. I don't know how else to say it."

Leadership contests, held behind closed doors by secret ballot, are notoriously hard to predict. The philosophical spectrum is but one factor in a complex mix that includes personal relationships, regional considerations, and the impact on lawmakers' committee assignments as the dominoes fall.

The Senate's senior member, Judiciary Committee Chairman Denton Darrington, R-Declo, is beginning his 29th year as a lawmaker. In the Senate, institutional conservatism - its aversion to rapid change - can trump ideology, he said.

"The Senate is a very stable body," Darrington said.

Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, tried to leap from the No. 4 leadership post, caucus chairman, to No. 1, president pro tem, after Sen. Bob Geddes of Soda Springs chose not to run for the post he held for a record 11 sessions.

Geddes endorsed Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee Chairman Brent Hill of Rexburg, who is seen as a touch less conservative than Fulcher.

"There's a pretty fine line between Brent Hill and Russ Fulcher," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. "If Russ is a '9,' then Brent's certainly an '8-and-a-half.'"

Still, Fulcher said his election would have been read as a meaningful shift to the right and that may have hurt his prospects. "This body will migrate towards a balance," Fulcher said.

Hill has Reaganesque qualities - dignity, warmth and a gift for disguising a formidable ambition.

"How can you not like Brent Hill?" said Fulcher, gracious in defeat. "To be pro tem, you've got to have that kind of respect."

The four new GOP members didn't turn out to provide the margin for change, as some advertised.

Sen. Lee Heider of Twin Falls personifies why there was no rightward lurch. As a member of the Twin Falls City Council, Heider served on the board of the Association of Idaho Cities. He met Hill in his capacity as chairman of the committee overseeing local government.

"Brent Hill is a mentor," said Heider. "I hope I voted for the character of the person. I was not aiming to move things more to the right, although I am conservative."

New GOP Caucus Chairman John McGee of Caldwell was the third leader to defeat a more conservative opponent, Sen. Dean Mortimer of Idaho Falls.

"There was a shift," McGee said, "but it was just a shift in personality, not philosophy."

The exception was Sen. Chuck Winder of Boise, who fashioned himself as the conservative alternative in ousting Assistant Majority Leader Joe Stegner of Lewiston. Stegner was sometimes outspoken in defying the GOP canon, particularly on social issues and tax reform.

"There was some perception that our leadership needed to be a different reflection," said Cameron, who with 11 terms is second in seniority. "That shift took place with Sen. Winder and Sen. Stegner."

But Stegner almost seemed a sacrificial lamb fed to the right wing, though he's nothing like a sheep.

"Joe is Joe," said Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home. "The campaign fervor has settled down. I think the majority of the people are solidly centrist folks, and the Senate reflects that. At least that's what I hope."

Lawmakers say they are united in this: They know a $340 million budget gap means the session will be one of the toughest ever, and they hope to tamp down conflict.

"We're anxious," said Fulcher. "We want to do the right thing, but we know, no matter what we do, there's going to be negative fallout."

Added Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, "The time for divisiveness is finished. It's time to move forward and take care of the affairs of the state."